In about four years from now, provided the Supreme Court consents, India will have a transgenic papaya that is resistant to papaya ring spot virus, which is found all over the country and causes deformed and inedible fruits and eventual plant mortality.
US seeds giant Monsanto Co agreed to give a royalty-free license of its genetically modified papaya to the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University on Tuesday.
"This is the first product delivery from Monsanto to the university and Monsanto has been working on this for the past year," said Bhagirath Choudhary, National Coordinator, International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), a not-for-profit agency that assists universities acquire technology from private companies.
According to the National Horticulture Board, India grows the fruit in about 1.5 lakh acres and produces about 250 lakh quintals of papaya every year. Among the states, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Orissa and West Bengal are the top producers of papaya. At present, there are two kinds of seeds sold to papaya farmers, both of which are sold by the University.
The Monsanto papaya is already grown commercially in the US and China. Genetically modified trials in India are embroiled in a Supreme Court case and the Court has banned large scale trials of genetically modified crops.
"Of course we are aware of that and we shall get all necessary clearances before we start trials," said P Subramanian, director of the University. "The ring spot virus can reduce yield between 30-70 per cent. It can devastate the whole crop and papaya is mostly grown by small farmers."
While the "transgenic papaya has been extensively used in Hawaii, it is important to note that there have been numerous incidences of organic and non-GM papaya crop getting contaminated with GM (genetically modified) papaya, which are right now being fought out in the courts," said Kavitha Kurugantiof the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, a lobby group for organic farmers.
Monsanto has given a mustard gene technology to The Energy Research Institute and the egg plant technology to the University.
The papaya license is valid for 10 years. After that, "whether it will be royalty-free or not will be decided by both the parties after the expiry of the license," said Sekhar Nataranjan, chairman of Monsanto India.
The license is also non-exlusive, which means that Monsanto can sell the product to other private players and universities, which could then be charged the royalty.
Monsanto and ISAAA officials declined to talk about the price of the transgenic papaya seeds, which will be sold later.
"The price will of course be higher to include the cost of technology, but the most we can tell you now, is that the price will be approximately 10% higher than the price of normal seeds," added Subramanian.